The fourth — Jude Kennan Mohammad, a Florida native indicted in North Carolina in 2009 — was killed in Pakistan, where the CIA has operated a drone campaign against terrorism suspects for nearly a decade. His death was previously unreported.
Holder’s letter came the day before President Obama is due to deliver a major speech designed to fulfill a promise in his State of the Union address in January to make elements of his controversial counterterrorism policies more transparent and accountable to Congress and the American public.
Obama is also under pressure to explain how he intends to make even modest progress on other priorities that were centerpieces of a pledge he made at the beginning of his first term. At the top of that list is closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, where 103 of the 166 detainees still in custody are on a hunger strike.
The administration is planning to restart the transfer of the detainees, 86 of whom have been cleared to leave. A White House official said without elaboration that Obama “will announce a number of specific steps to advance” his goal of closing the facility.
In addition to disclosure of the four killings, Holder wrote that Obama has approved classified briefings for Congress on an overall policy document, informally called the “playbook.” The document, more than a year in the making, codifies the administration’s standards and processes for its unprecedented program of targeted killing and capture of terrorism suspects outside of war zones.
Nearly 400 drone strikes, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, have been launched by the CIA and U.S. military forces during Obama’s presidency. Although the administration has acknowledged the existence of the drone program and outlined its justification under international and domestic law, specific operations are considered classified.
The secrecy surrounding the program — including the criteria for choosing targets — has led to widespread opposition from international law and human rights advocates and, increasingly, from Congress and the public. Although the administration has stressed the precision accuracy of drones, independent groups have charged that thousands of civilians have been unintentionally killed.
Congressional and public criticism reached a crescendo this year when Obama nominated John Brennan, then his principal counterterrorism adviser, as CIA director. Before they would confirm Brennan, lawmakers demanded access to Justice Department legal opinions justifying the killing of U.S. citizens overseas without due process or other constitutional protections. Although the documents were made available to the Senate and House intelligence committees, other members insisted that they had a right to the information.